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Saturated with Light

Thomas McCarthy

The Mother House, by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Gallery Press, 80 pp, €11.95, ISBN 978-1911337713

Former Ireland Professor of Poetry, emeritus professor of English at TCD, scion of the nation’s founding families of Dillons and Plunketts, member of Aosdána and founder of Cyphers, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin hardly needs an introduction in any part of Irish society, literary or political. In poetry, she has used her luck and her gifts wisely and well, both as mentor and exemplar. To teach and to advocate poetry is in her bones, as it is in the DNA of Máire Mhac an tSaoí; but, as in Mhac an tSaoí, this tremendously rich, end-of-an-era, haut-bourgeois Catholic life comes with the added gold dust of poetry. Like Mhac an tSaoí, she has been the immensely dutiful daughter of gifted fathers and mothers, and the gold traces left on the page from that inheritance of familial and academic duty form an essential part of the jewelled hoard of her writing career. In every one of her collections of poetry there have been brief resting-points but no hours of idleness. This dutiful, purposeful restlessness is one of the most determining characteristics of The Mother House:

Now that there’s nothing I don’t understand
why do they come to me with their informations?
They come in my dreams with their highlighting pens,
They tell me the roman numerals
On the shelf-end panels in the cathedral library …
                                                          “Monsters”

Here is a child reared to absorb information; and still, like all good poets, still a child in her mid- seventies. Here, all gold flourishes and leaf script capitals, with a protagonist who makes shrouds of words, the poet’s mind is sacrificed to a world of monsters ornate with grapes. The medieval is never far from the poet’s mind, and that sense of doomed learning is everywhere. Ní Chuilleanáin’s instinct, though, has always been to compose poems with camera angles. From the very beginning of her Cork collaborations with Brian Lalor she has been a word-cinematographer, and her camerawork has always been that of a woman voyaging, capturing the light, the angles and the briefly glimpsed faces of strangers or fellow voyagers.  I’ve lost count of the number of boats, seas, exiles, elsewheres and remembered Irelands in this present book:

Sister Clara, Sister Antony, meeting a niece
In the quiet convent garden in Desvres,
Are overheard reminiscing, always in French,
About their first convent on the hill in Cork
And its precious holdings, the Penal Chalice ...
                                “To the Mother House”

Exile, sisterhood, history, are celebrated here, as well as the wine and brandy, the lace and “the little medals blessed and certified / in Rome”. And all of this richness in the poem, this litany of faith chaperoned by educated and consecrated women, is dove-tailed into a chunk of marble beneath an altar, marble that can show the bones inside the skin. This is the delicate hardness of an earned belief, the plenitude of connections inside Irish Catholic faith. With Ní Chuilleanáin it has always been women voyaging, right from the earliest narratives of her Patrick Kavanagh award-winning Acts and Monuments. There have always been women setting out on a journey, often women setting out alone, and often women beginning some kind of tour of duty. The schedules and rhythms of Catholic boarding schools and colleges are in every Ní Chuilleanáin book. It has often occurred to me that these rhythms would hardly be visible to a non-Catholic reader, or to any Catholic under the age of fifty. They are the duties and clock-work of my own generation, and she is one of the last chroniclers of this circumscribed 1950s-1960s world.

But Ní Chuilleanáin is not merely a representative poet, representing just one set of circumstances. Nowadays, because of the increasing politicisation of art and poetry into mere representative fragments, representing specific social experiences such as injustice or marginalisation, we have forgotten how each poet’s work is essentially an affirmation of sovereignty. In the end all poets will declare independence from all the materials that bind him or her to limited or contested themes. However restricted the poet may be socially or politically, the poet will always rush towards freedom inwardly; the gold for the reader is in that inner freedom. Yet for this poet, the poetry is also in the camerawork; and the camerawork, its insights and flashes, is what amazes the Ní Chuilleanáin reader. Certainly, poetry does contain honourable and very important political narratives; and it can be a forceful witness in politics and a vital rhetorical tool against injustice. But wanting everything to represent something can destroy genius and comfort the second-rate who operate so effectively in the current academic and poetic worlds. In a very real sense we should always meet a poet as if for the first time, even in a ninth or tenth book. Reading The Mother House is a sharp reminder of this – Ní Chuilleanáin was a poet of genius long before her work was meant to represent anything. Loneliness has been her great photographer, and this cinematography has been a compelling aspect of her voice. It is all there in “The Blind”:

 One broken slat pulled from the blind
shows only a slice: the marbled clouds,
a world of bright sky stretching.

But she can’t look out. The news,
A thread that crawls and winds, drags her
Into the dark well ...
                                             “The Blind”

And this collection unfolds with such a canny imaginative firmness. Nano Nagle is the subject of “An Imperfect Enclosure”, the first poem; but this serves only as an overture, a tasting, for the great sequence “A Map of Convents” with its Cove Lane girls and boys, piano lessons and Latin grammar, a man hidden in a kitchen chimney, and that extraordinary phrase “those who were absent with permission”. The theme – or  trope, really – develops further into the superb “Sister Marina” and “To the Mother House”. And it continues, with several other women who were absent with permission from motherhood and family, including, even, Maria Edgeworth in 1847 who was so moved by the porters who loaded India meal for Irish Famine victims that she knitted a woollen comforter for each workingman:

Like the girl whose brothers were turned into swans,
she does what she knows, the long scarves piling
softly beside her chair, one after the other like the days.

Edgeworth’s days were short indeed. Before the woollens reached the men she herself had died, an irony that Ní Chuilleanáin has turned into something of great poetic beauty here.  Geraldine Plunkett is another shade reborn, with her young Dillon husband in 1916. As is beloved Leland Bardwell, where the sea, the waves, the suntrap seat in her garden, the ladylike tweed, the little polo ponies in Phoenix park; all of these things are stitched together and left on the page for us, like a black cat on a dry ledge above the foamy ocean. It is no surprise that the Leland Bardwell elegy is saturated with light, Ní Chuilleanáin’s element:

making one shining surface of rising water
where all the reflected lights floating shine together,
they carry the glint of all the colours ...
 “The Raging Foam”

So I give you, then, yet another perfect book from this poet of sunlight and cloisters. This collection is a joy to read, and a reminder, yet again, that the poets are sent to amaze us, to bring us all nearer to the light.

1/2/2020

Thomas McCarthy is a poet, novelist and essayist. Born at Cappoquin, Co. Waterford in 1954 and educated at University College Cork. He worked as a Public Librarian for many years. 

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